Friday, June 21, 2013

The Best Part

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart...
     Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father?
-Hebrews 12:1-3, 7 (NIV)

Tuesday night, one of the greatest games in the history of the NBA Finals was played.
     And many fans of the winning team missed the best part.
     The Miami Heat trailed the San Antonio Spurs by 5 with 30 seconds left. Up 3 games to 2 in the best of  7 series, San Antonio was 30 seconds away from an NBA championship. It looked bad for the Heat, playing at home in Miami. The crowd, which had been into the game all night, was quiet.
     It might have had something to do with the fact that a lot of them started for the exits.
     Earlier in the fourth quarter, Miami fought back from 7 points down. They actually led by 3 with 2 minutes remaining. But the Spurs went on a little run, and Miami found themselves on the wrong end of the score with not much time to come back. And, evidently, a significant number of fans thought they didn’t have another comeback in them. 
     Of course, now we know they did. Chris Bosh grabbed a key rebound off a LeBron James miss, whipped the ball out to Ray Allen, who had set up perfectly behind the 3-point line. Allen drained the shot to force overtime. Miami went on to win the game, 103-100, and force Game 7.
     Which, we also know now, the Heat won to take the Championship.
     Which, you know, makes those fans who left look kind of bad. You know they went to the office the next day and talked about how loud it was in the arena when Allen tied the game.
     In fairness, though, what we’re talking about is a basketball game. Those folks who left are kind of being savaged in the media right now as bandwagon fans, and maybe they are. But if you pay anywhere from $400 (standing room) and up for a basketball game, and you want to leave early to beat the traffic or grab a late dinner, that’s your call. 
     If, though, you were there on someone else’s dime, and they wanted to stay? Well, hopefully you’d be good enough to stick around.
     “Endurance” probably isn’t one of our favorite words. After all, we don’t usually talk about “enduring” an afternoon nap, or a massage, or a vacation at a tropical resort. We don’t “endure” a raise at work, or a new house, or a 75-degree sunny day. We endure the difficult, the harsh, the painful. Endurance goes with sweat, blood, and tears. It goes with work and pain and hardship. We endure a traffic jam, sure, or a particularly harsh winter. But even traffic jams are first-world problems. And a harsh winter is much more easily endured the way most of us do it - in a heated, insulated house, with plenty of warm clothes and a reliable snow-blower available. 
     No, endurance for crushing poverty.
     Endurance is for debilitating disease.
     Endurance is for hunger, for the ever-present threat of violence, for righteousness in the face of injustice and love in the face of hate. Endurance is turning the other cheek to those who would strike you. It’s bending the back and submitting to the lash. It’s choosing not to respond to lies and false accusations, even with the truth. 
     There have been believers in Jesus all through the centuries for who endurance was always a necessity. There are still plenty living today. Just because that's not our experience in the Western world - where truth is regarded as relative and religion as too private to be persecuted - doesn't mean that millions of our brothers and sisters all over the world aren't living every day under the pressures of exclusion, discrimination, imprisonment, and death.
     And it doesn't mean that we don't need endurance in our faith.
     The fact is that there are countless ways in which the daily pressures of life and our own fears and doubts speak against the promises of the gospel and undermine its call on our lives. The pretty, shiny things around us distract us and tempt us to put aside character and integrity. The wounds of living in a fallen world cry out for comfort and lead us to find it wherever we can. People reject us and mock us for our faith. The demands of the gospel sometimes seem hard and unreasonable.
     Jesus knows. Endurance was part of his experience too. He endured insult, and mockery. He endured his own fear and doubt and pain. He endured a cross, endured the shame of it and the horror of it. He endured because of “the joy set before him.” He endured because he knew something those Heat fans didn’t. He remembered something we often forget.
     Victory is sure.
     It’s sure because God endures, too. “His love endures forever,” says the psalmist, literally with every breath. He endures our fear and doubts. He endures our tendency to wander away toward everything that promises to ease our hurt. He endures our selfishness and greed. His love endures forever. And it, too, endured a cross. 
     And because of his always-enduring love, through Jesus victory is sure. We’re here on his dime. He paid the cost. He endured, and it’s not too much for him to ask the same of us.
     Those Miami Heat fans who left the game early? Some of them heard what happened. On their way to their cars or whatever, they heard that their team had tied the score and that the game was going to overtime. They heard, and they turned around and went back to the arena. 
     Only to find the doors closed and locked from the inside. 
     They knocked. They pleaded. They indignantly announced the prices they had paid for their tickets. But the guards pointed to the the large “No Readmittance” signs and refused to allow them back in.
     They didn’t endure. And so they missed the best part. They missed the victory.

     May that not be our experience. May we endure in our faith, in our love for the Lord, in our trust in him even when everything around us is going wrong. Even if everyone else has gone home, may we endure to the end. Because the day is coming when endurance will be a thing of the past. When celebration will be the future. Forever.

Friday, June 14, 2013


    So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
-Matthew 6:31-34 (TNIV)
Please pardon me if I seem a little stressed out. I really can’t help it. After all, I apparently live in the third most stressful city in America.
    Yes, this week Chicago was named in an article in Forbes magazine as the third most stressful place in the United States to live. Forbes based their evaluation on several factors, including air quality, unemployment rate, the cost of housing and gas, traffic congestion, and population density. Chicago scored high enough in all these categories to push our lovely city past Detroit, San Francisco Philadelphia, and Dallas and claim the title of Third Most Stressful Place in America. Only Los Angeles (#1) and New York (#2) were rated as more stressful than the Windy City.
    Forbes says that Chicago has the worst traffic congestion in the nation, with commuters spending 70 hours a year in traffic jams. (I never sit in traffic as I commute to work; then again, I live across the street from my office....) We have an unemployment rate of 10.3%, and we’re the fourth most densely-packed city in the nation.
    We also have the Cubs.
    On the plus side, we have deep-dish pizza. And the Blackhawks. (Though Wednesday night’s 3-overtime win in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals might have actually ratcheted up our stress levels.)
    Funny thing, though. I’ve lived in Chicago for over twenty years and, aside from a little high blood pressure, I’m in pretty good health. You’d think all that time living in the most stressful city in America would have taken more of a toll. In fact, I know lots of people who live in other places who seem to have at least as much stress in their lives as I do, if not more. And I’m sure there are places in other parts of the world that make Chicago look about as stressful as a quiet tropical island.
    Though we use it to refer to almost anything that makes us worried or anxious, the word stress originally described “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” In other words, stress is the set of general symptoms we feel when things don’t go as we planned and we’re forced to adjust on the fly. If that’s what stress is, then I think we’re left with an inescapable conclusion.
    We can’t avoid stress.
    If stress is the body’s response to any demand for change, then short of having absolute and complete control of your life, and the lives of those around you, stress is inescapable. Stuff will happen to you that you hadn’t planned for. Stuff will happen to you that you might have planned for, but sooner than you planned. Stuff will happen to you that you planned for, and you’ll find that your plans don’t cover it. Or if it’s not you this week, it will be someone you love, and that person’s stress will cause you stress.
    We might as well recognize the stress we feel for what it is: a biological reaction to the upsetting of our apple carts, be it a lane closure or a foreclosure, the birth of a baby or the death of a parent, starting a new job or getting fired, marriage problems or dating problems. Something happens that demands change, or adaptation, or fight, or flight, and our bodies amp up the energy level and take stock of options. Not just in Chicago, or even especially in Chicago. Anywhere. Everywhere.
    I think a lot of what we call stress is really worry, and what we usually worry about are the things we can’t do much else about. Somehow, though, we seem to be under the impression that by obsessing over it and fretting about a problem, lying awake all night turning it over in our heads, and driving everyone we know crazy endlessly retelling and rehashing it, we can somehow solve it.
    That’s why we don’t like it that Jesus seems dismissive of the things that stress us. “Don’t worry,” he says, and being wired the way we are it’s little wonder that our knee-jerk response is something along the lines of, “Yeah, right.” But don’t tune him out, because what he suggests is that worry is a theological problem. We worry, he claims, because the God we believe in isn’t powerful enough or loving enough or concerned enough to watch over us. Thankfully, he reminds us that the God we’re supposed to believe in is our “heavenly Father,” and that he cares for his children.
    Jesus suggests that we learn some life lessons from the birds and the grass. Neither are strong in the area of strategic, long-range planning. Yet, by and large, God cares for them. The birds seem to have all they need to eat. The grass is clothed in flowers as bright as the finery of a king. They go about their business, they do what they do and live their lives, and God cares for them. “Are you not much more valuable to God?” Jesus asks us – who are made in his image, shaped by his hands, animated by his breath. “Don’t you think your Father in heaven will care for you at least that well?”
    Worry, Jesus says, is the response of pagans to a world that’s out of their control. The response of believers is faith in a God who knows exactly what we need and is happy to provide it. The response of believers is prayer: to give thanks for his care in the past and ask for it to continue in the present and future.
     Instead of worry, Jesus suggests that we focus our energies on seeking God: his reign over our hearts and lives, his righteousness lived out in what we do and say. It’s kind of a nice way, I think, of telling us to just try to do what God says and be the people he made us to be, and leave the planning to him. That’s scary, for some us. For all of us, to an extent. Then again, there’s something attractive about it, too. To live with joy and expectation and trust, instead of anxiety, worry, and gloom?
    We can. We have every reason to live that way. Leave worry to those who don’t know our Father in heaven. That’s not for us. The God we know cares for the birds and the grass and loves us even more. So much, in fact, that he didn’t even withhold his Son from us. Trust his power and love, seek his presence and his will above everything else, and you’ll be ready to deal with any kind of stress life may have in store for you.
    Why, you might even be able to live in Chicago.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Restoration Movement

  “Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you.”
-1 Corinthians 13:11 (NIV) 

We had some work done in our house this week by a company that characterizes its work as “restoration.”  The word is part of the company name. It’s on the truck that’s been parked in front of the house, on the signs that have been planted in the front yard. Restoration.
     The implication, of course, is that they don’t build their own designs. Their goal isn’t to change a floor plan, or install central heat and air, or put in a new kitchen. They restore: they refinish wood, they do custom carpentry to restore wood trim, they repair masonry, and they paint. They make homes and buildings look like they were built to look. Sometimes they need to build something new, but when they do it’s in service to restoration
     That word restoration caught my attention, I guess, because my faith heritage is in a group of churches known, collectively, as “The Restoration Movement.” The movement began - at least as historians would describe its beginnings - on the American frontier in the nineteenth century. It sort of coalesced, really, from several independent efforts to return the church to apostolic Christianity. It was the Restoration Movement because its stated goal was to restore New Testament Christianity and thus help bring about unity among the various denominations of Christianity. 
     Somewhere along the line the Restoration Movement - as all movements eventually do - lost its way and lost its steam. (Not everyone associated with it, or every church associated with it: there have always been prophetic voices that recognize our shortcomings and call us back to the task of true restoration.) In our case, the way was lost because we convinced ourselves that we had finished the task of restoration. We managed that by allowing the grand idea of restoring apostolic Christianity to be boiled down to a small checklist. On that checklist were highly tangible, easily measurable goals consisting of things that we were or were not to do in our Sunday gatherings, matters of church organization and leadership structure, and conviction that baptism was the means by which a person took hold of the promises of the gospel. Once those items were checked off, any church could tell itself that it had restored New Testament Christianity within its walls. 
     Would that it were that simple.
     Let me be very clear: I’m still enough of a child of the Restoration Movement that I believe that the restoration of apostolic Christianity should be the goal of every person who claims faith in Jesus. 
     I just don’t believe that the movement of which I’m a product, and of which the church I’m a part of is a product, has finished the work of restoration.
     When we think we’re done with restoration, we turn our eyes, our tongues, and our pens toward everyone else. That’s what happened to the restoration movement of which I’m a part, and it happened within a generation. That’s why - if you’re not a part of Churches of Christ, for instance, but have heard of us - you probably think we’re contentious, argumentative bumpkins. 
     That’s what happens when we think we’ve restored what we’re supposed to restore. We take our sledgehammers and trowels and paint rollers and go to work on everyone else. Whether they’ve asked us to or not. 
     But look at the way the Bible uses that word, “restore.” It’s all over the Old Testament, particularly on the lips of the psalmists and prophets. In those cases, it’s God who does the work of restoration. The people can restore their temple. They can restore the walls of Jerusalem. They can restore the faithful observance of the Law.
     But only God restores the people.
     His people wait, and hope, and pray, and repent, and cry out for him in their distress. 
     But, in the end, it’s God who restores. 
     That’s why Peter talked about Jesus in terms of restoration. In Jesus, God is bringing about his plan to “restore everything.” It’s God’s restoration - we only participate in it. And God’s restoration certainly doesn’t have to do only (or even mainly) with restoring particular doctrinal emphases, organizational models, or Sunday worship practices. God’s restoration is much broader - he intends to restore “everything”. And it’s much narrower - he intends to restore human beings to himself. We can restore our doctrine and practice, get it all in line with the New Testament. But restoration still isn’t done, because what needs restoring is people to God. And that’s always God’s work.
     That’s not to say that we don’t participate in it. Peter reminds us that restoration and “times of refreshing” come when we repent - when we take an honest look at ourselves and do a 180 away from whatever we find in ourselves that God didn’t intend. That’s why a restoration movement that thinks they’ve arrived is no restoration movement at all. That’s why a person who’s content with himself will never experience God’s restoration of his heart and mind. 
     That’s why Paul ends his second letter to the Christians in Corinth by saying, “Strive for full restoration.” He’s been praying for their full restoration. But he doesn’t encourage them to sit idly and wait for God to answer his prayer. “Be restored,” he tells them. “Be what you know God is making you.”
     That’s good advice for anyone who values the restoration of apostolic Christianity, running pure from its source: “Be what you know God is making you.” In Jesus, God has given us a glimpse of what he wants us to be. He’s given us a look at his creation restored to perfection. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, he has given us a place in that world. His Holy Spirit is a deposit. And so restoration isn’t the implementation of a checklist, however biblically-derived a checklist it may be. It’s no less than welcoming God’s remaking of our hearts, so that we may continue the work of restoration in the broken world around us.
     So our efforts at restoration - whatever they may be - anticipate the day when God restores all things in Jesus. The restoration the psalmists and prophets longed for, that God always promised his people is coming, has come in Jesus. But it’s still arriving, and will be complete only when Jesus comes back. Until then, let us never again make the mistake that the work of restoration is over. Let us be busy participants  in the restorative work God is doing in our communities, in our churches, and in our hearts. And let our standard always be the one who lived and died and lives again to bring about God’s restoration.
     And may we never look away from that day on the horizon when God restores everything that’s been broken and damaged and corrupted. May we look forward to that day, and speed its coming.